On a bitterly cold afternoon earlier this year, the Haw River in North Carolina was running high—its water a bright ocher, thanks to heavy rainfall and snow melt.
Most of the water flowed south, where it would eventually connect with Jordan Lake and the rest of the Cape Fear River Basin, home to the cities of Greensboro, Durham, Fayetteville, and Wilmington, and a major source of drinking water for the eastern half of the state.
But some of it took a sharp turn, pumped up to the local water treatment plant where it was cleaned and filtered before continuing its journey, piped down the road and into a church in downtown Pittsboro, where Jim Vaughn had just finished helping hand out free lunches.
Vaughn, a retired electrical equipment salesman and longtime Pittsboro resident, had found a problem with the water coming out of the church’s tap: contamination with a group of chemicals that are linked to health concerns.
The 76-year-old is part of a collaborative project between the Guardian and Consumer Reports that tested 120 tap water samples from locations across the U.S. for dozens of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS are a group of roughly 5,000 compounds found in everything from food packaging to nonstick cookware to firefighting foam. The health risks associated with long-term PFAS exposure include cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease.
The chemicals have been around for more than 80 years, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the Environmental Protection Agency set an advisory limit for PFAS in drinking water—70 parts per trillion (ppt).
According to the test, the water coming from the Pittsboro church’s tap measured PFAS levels of 80 ppt.
The EPA is under considerable pressure to lower its limits on PFAS. For instance, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group has proposed a total PFAS limit of 1 ppt in drinking water and groundwater.
CR’s scientists say the maximum allowed amount should be 5 ppt for a single PFAS chemical and 10 ppt for two or more. That is in line with the standards for bottled water that an industry group, the International Bottled Water Association, has its members adhere to.
Vaughn, who wears a black cowboy hat with a multicolored feather stuck in the band, wasn’t particularly surprised at the high PFAS result from the Consumer Reports and Guardian testing. His lack of surprise was also likely due to North Carolina’s long history with PFAS. In the early 1970s, the chemical company DuPont began operating a manufacturing facility that discharged PFAS into the Cape Fear River.
“There’s a feeling of helplessness,” Vaughn says. “Is there something we can do about it? Is there something that the town will do about it? Or will we let it ride and try to ignore it?”
Knowingly or unknowingly, he says, communities like Pittsboro are used to getting “dumped on.”
For more than 90 years Duke Energy operated a large coal-fired power plant in the nearby community of Moncure (population 709), right where the Haw and Deep rivers converge to become the Cape Fear. The area is now the site of a coal ash disposal pit, which is being filled with as much as 12 million tons of slag, powder, and other residual byproducts of burning coal. Multiple tests have revealed elevated levels of metals and other contaminants in groundwater near the site.
The PFAS contamination of Cape Fear River has been a source of controversy for years. A 2007 EPA study found evidence of PFAS contamination downstream from the plant and throughout the Cape Fear River Basin, including high concentrations near the Fort Bragg and Pope Field military bases. In 2016, researchers discovered contamination farther downstream, as well as in local drinking water, a revelation that spawned a spat of news coverage.
Since then the state has engaged in a back and forth with the offending companies over the issue. In 2017, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality blocked the DuPont plant (now operated by a DuPont offshoot, The Chemours Company) from discharging into the Cape Fear, and later entered into a consent order requiring that Chemours pay a $12 million fine.
Late last year the state filed a lawsuit against the companies, alleging that they “knowingly discharged vast quantities of PFAS into the air, water, sediments, and soils of . . . southeastern North Carolina.”
Asked to comment about the CR test finding in Pittsboro, Chemours spokesman Thom Sueta said in an email that the company had taken “numerous actions to reduce the emissions of fluorinated organic compounds (FOCs)—that includes PFAS,” and that its goal was to reduce them “by at least 99 percent” at its sites worldwide compared with a 2018 baseline.
Sueta said there were “many sources that impact the water quality of the Cape Fear River.” At its Fayetteville, N.C., site, Chemours has installed “a thermal oxidizer that is destroying more than 99.99 percent of FOC emissions from the processes directed to it” and there was “remediation work underway to address groundwater, including our seep treatment units,” Sueta said.
The highest concentrations of PFAS chemicals from the 2007 EPA study were found upstream of the Chemours plant, near Pittsboro.
That was one of the first indications that the problem might be more widespread than first thought, says Emily Sutton, at the Haw River Assembly, a nonprofit that focuses on the Haw. For Sutton, who serves as riverkeeper for the Haw and spends most of her time these days studying, thinking, and talking PFAS, the issue is threefold.
The first and often most pressing problem for locals like those in Pittsboro is the contamination in municipal drinking water. But solving this requires hugely expensive upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities (recently floated price tags for Pittsboro, a town of 4,200, range upwards of $20 million) or costly individual, in-home filtration systems. “We know that the drinking water in the town of Pittsboro is contaminated,” Sutton says. “People who are concerned are left to pay for a reverse osmosis system in their own home. That means that only people who can afford that luxury have safe drinking water.”
The second problem is identifying and stopping contamination at its source. According to Sutton, ongoing testing has revealed that much of the PFAS chemicals floating down the Haw and into Pittsboro originate from the nearby city of Burlington. Late last year, the Haw River Assembly helped forge an agreement with the city, compelling it to identify the local facilities or companies responsible for discharging PFAS.
More broadly, Sutton says, regulatory agencies in the U.S. need to reconsider their priorities. The current system favors the introduction of new chemicals, products, or processes, only later limiting or removing them after they’re proved to be harmful. Sutton would rather bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality operate under the precautionary principle—the idea that the onus lies with companies and producers to prove something is harmless before it is introduced into the environment.
PFAS chemicals are a perfect example, she adds, saying that of the some 5,000 compounds in the category, scientists can only test for roughly 30. “We can’t regulate these compounds one at a time,” Sutton says. “The science exists to demonstrate that (they) should be regulated as a class because they’re equally as harmful. It’s such an obvious step that we could take as a country to prioritize the health of our communities rather than the profit of industries.”
Officials in the town insist that they are doing everything they can to improve the water quality. Chris Kennedy, the town manager for Pittsboro, told the Guardian that that while the town was not a contributor to PFAS, it was “still diligently working towards removing PFAS from our potable water supply.” Kennedy said the town was in the process of installing infrastructure that will remove at least 90 percent of PFAS by the end of the year and that it was taking steps where it could “to reduce contamination into the Haw River, which will provide the best results long term.”
Pittsboro itself stands at a crossroads. A new 7,100-acre mixed-use development is set to add as many as 60,000 people to the town. That kind of rapid growth is likely to squeeze low-income residents and exacerbate public health disparities that already exist in the community, says Jennifer Platt, a Pittsboro resident and adjunct professor of public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Platt, who has a 12-year-old son, installed a home filtration system after she first learned about the PFAS contamination, calling it “not affordable but mandatory.” But she also recognizes that many residents don’t have the means to do what she did.
“Here it’s about equity in terms of who understands the problem with the water and who’s able to deal with it,” the 51-year-old says.
Platt is part of the local Water Quality Task Force, which recently recommended that the town build a centralized water station—fitted with a reverse osmosis filtration system—where residents could access clean water. She adds that she would like to see the money from lawsuits against PFAS polluters redistributed to affected residents to subsidize filtration systems or bottled water.
But while she is optimistic now that the ball is rolling, the whole ordeal has highlighted the failures of government and regulatory agencies to keep people safe, particularly those in more marginalized areas, Platt says.
“Our national policies are not geared toward protecting us,” she says. “Poorer communities are bearing the brunt of our pollution. What we have to do now is to continue to mitigate the problem as best as we can until we have a permanent solution.”
Editor’s Note: Reporting in North Carolina for the Guardian was supported by the Water Foundation.